Oil Painting

The Barn and the Beast

One of my greatest artistic idols is the web cartoonist The Oatmeal.

He’s witty. He’s bold. He’s profound. I read his work to laugh, but even more so, I read it to think.

Credit, The Oatmeal, from the comic "Making Things"

Credit, The Oatmeal, from the comic “Making Things”

Which is why I devoured his most recent interview with the Seattle Times. With the headline, Hardworking, ticked off, “driven by rage and anxiety”: The Oatmeal isn’t who you think he isthe article provides thoughtful insight into Matthew Inman’s (The Oatmeal) life as an artist.

What stood out to me the most was this paragraph:

“I enjoy things most when I suffer beforehand,’’ he says. “I like to suffer, suffer, suffer, and then you get to enjoy something.” It’s why he took up distance running — not just marathons or triathlons, but those absurdly punishing races that push people past the point of endurance into the darkest parts of their psyches.

More on this later.


This week, I finished my most challenging painting to date. It was a photo of my parents’ hobby farm property, shot from the back of the house on a misty morning. There was a low fog drifting around the back fields, so I grabbed the SLR and shot this from the back of the house, looking out on the barns. Those barns are no longer there; they were in danger of collapsing, so my parents elected to have them torn down instead of restoring them. Due to the value of barn wood in restoration and upcycling projects, we had no issues in having the wood dismantled and taken away, and I am even going to be getting a harvest table out of the wood, which will be handcrafted by a carpenter as a wedding gift for my partner and I. So, in a Something From Nothing kind of way, the barn itself will live on in, reincarnated as beloved furniture.

Relics Compressed

This is why I titled the piece “Relics” (2016, 22″ x 36″, oil on canvas). The Google definition of a relic is: “an object surviving from an earlier time, especially one of historical or sentimental interest.” The barns, by this definition, are relics, silent observers from a bygone era, when cows still roamed the fields and tractors zigzagged lazily across fields of hay.

Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? So idealistic, so nostalgic. Perhaps the knowledge that this was painted in a studio makes you think of it being peacefully and lovingly crafted. I’ll give you the image I had visualized back when I dreamed about having my own studio: picture an airy room, with the sunlight streaming in and quiet jazz playing from a radio in the corner. There’s a mug of tea sending steam swirls into the air as I paint calmly. If I had my way, there’d be a studio cat, napping in a basket.

I can’t even write anymore, because aside from the jazz (I’m partial to Big Band music), the rest is a load of tosh. And this freaking barn painting nearly sent me over the edge; not once, but multiple times.

My creativity is not a sassy lady in a toga à la Disney’s Hercules, or a loving friend who gently passes me ideas via mental notes.

Hercules

It would be so awesome if my creativity was like this…

No. My creativity is a raging torrent of fear, anxiety, mania, and insecurity. It is a beast, and it lives inside of me at all times. It forces me to fixate on minute details or mistakes that I have made, often obsessively, often late at night. It says I am not good enough, I don’t work hard enough, I’m not skilled enough. It keeps me from moving forward by creating unnecessary plateaus. It creates montages of all my inadequacies and displays it on repeat.

la_ca_1217_the_hobbit

This is unfortunately the preferred shape of my artsy-ness.

This barn. Took me six weeks. Six. Frigging. Weeks. It has nearly every single colour in the rainbow. The fence alone has over ten different colours in it. The barn has been painted over approximately five times, because each time, something just wasn’t “right” (Barn 3.0 was probably the best, but Barn 5.0 is pretty darn close). The Beast absolutely loved this piece because there was so much for it to attack.


Let’s go back to The Oatmeal and the concept of suffering.

Back in 2012 when I was in training for my Ironman 70.3, I spent well over ten hours a week running, cycling and swimming (which, by triathlon standards, is quite light). I used to cycle the 80 km between Toronto and Hamilton in a morning, and return on a GO Bus. On weekends, I’d take my bike out to Caledon or Muskoka, and cycle hills for 5+ hours. Cycling was my favourite, because it’s the closest I’ll ever get to being able to fly.

But there’s a bizarre strength that comes when you’re hurting. I’m currently reading Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild, and she nails it on page 95, “…hiking the PCT [Pacific Crest Trail] was hard in a different way. In a way that made the other hardest things the tiniest bit hard. It was strange but true.”

When you’re a creative, and you take up part-time residency in the land of make-believe, it’s sometimes a bit of a gauntlet run to get past the Beast prowling the conduit between worlds. Pretty much every artist I know has a method to cope, but mine is to do something even scarier and harder. Then, in comparison, making a whoopsie while painting doesn’t seem so bad.

I may not be able to slay the Beast, because it’s a part of who I am…but I can outrun it.  

So here’s what all of this is leading towards: in the summer of 2013, my beloved Cervélo triathlon bike was stolen. I haven’t done long-distance cycling since. I’ve decided that I’m going to try and get a nice bike on sale at the end of this season, and get back into the only thing scarier than art: triathlon.

Doing the Ironman 70.3 opened the door to incredible transformation in my life. When you can drag your body across 70.3 miles (113.1km) of water, metal and pavement, you feel a deep sense of power. If I can swim 2km, cycle 90km, and run 21km, I can do anything. It’s what gave me the push I needed to make tremendous, positive life changes, leading me from Toronto to North Bay.

I don’t know what distance of triathlon I’ll feel ready to tackle next year. But all I know is that I’m ready to fly again. From Toronto to Niagara Falls, all over Muskoka, I’m ready to connect my feet to the pedals and just go as far as I conceivably can. Sometimes distance training hurts, but that’s almost the point.

Beast/rat/artistic ego…you’re in for a drubbing. Or at the very least, I’m going to take you and turn you into a bird.

Bob Ross 2


Two Studio announcements:

First, I’m hoping to make the space as close to zero waste and plastic free that I can. That means weening out the plastic bottles being offered during Paint Nights. But don’t worry, I’ll keep you hydrated: I’m going to get one of those neat, oversized mason jar water dispensers along with glasses to use. Just don’t put your paintbrush in (it’ll happen, guaranteed).

Second, if you want to receive advanced notice of classes being offered in October, please write to me via the contact me page. I can’t put my email directly here because then I’ll receive spam mail from robots, but the form is easy to use.

How Bad Do You Want It? Attempting to Go Pro

One of my favourite motivational videos of all time asks, how bad do you want it? Accompanied by a spoken word sermon by Eric Thomas (AKA the Hip Hop Preacher), the footage showing Giavanni Ruffin training in the NFL off-season gives insight into the pain, suffering, and overpowering desire to succeed that professional athletes must bear.

I watch this whenever I need a boost for my motivation, because this desire to become proficient in any field comes with a similar level of both sacrifice and hunger for success. It doesn’t matter if you’re an athlete, a contractor, or a creative; the struggle is real.

I have this crazy dream, that one day I’ll be a professional artist and arts educator. In this dream, I’m able to travel all over the world with my camera – shooting landscapes, people, and wild animals – and bringing the world back into my studio to translate it into a painting. In this dream, when I’m not traveling, I’ll be teaching, working with local groups and schools, helping students find that same sense of satisfaction and empowerment that I feel whenever I realize that my painting is actually going well. Bob Ross

This month, I actually took the leap to make this dream a reality. I found a space, rented it, and spent the past few weeks painting and preparing so that it feels like a professional art studio. When I walk into my studio, it feels calm, serene, and so beautiful.

Despite this, on the first day that I was going to go in to work on a painting, I was gripped with anxiety and fear. What if I had put in all this effort to create a studio space, only to realize that I’m actually a terrible painter? Had I overestimated my abilities? With the acquisition of a studio, failure was no longer an abstract concept; it was very real, and very possible. Until I had taken the leap to pay for my own space, there was no real risk to my art practice if I didn’t sell any paintings or book any commissions. But now, if I don’t keep income steadily streaming through the door, I will lose my studio.

So that morning, I pushed against the desire to stay at home and stew over my worries and cycled to the studio. There are few things in the world that I cannot solve after a bike ride, although some problems require longer distances than others. As a grounding method, I highly recommend it.

Upon arriving, I sat in front of my easel, and tried to calm myself. I can’t screw this up, I can’t be bad, I can’t have put all this effort into perfecting the space only to be terrible…

Athletes train their bodies so that when push comes to shove, instinct takes over, and their muscles fire on their own. Artists can do the same, and this is precisely what happened. A little voice, which sounded suspiciously like Olaf Schneider’s, started to take over and tell me what to do.

You’re wasting time. Time is commission money. Stop fussing and start mixing your colours. Take the time; get them right. Hm, that’s too purple, lots of chroma in there. You need to tone it down, add a little burnt sienna. Closer. Good. Keep your brush clean. 

I let autopilot completely take over. To be honest, I don’t remember a lot of what happened over those two hours. Part of that was due to the fact that I was listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers on audio book (more on this later), but I zoned out and painted in a state of flow, guided by instinct and training. And my god, it felt good. Rather than worrying, I switched the anxiety-ridden part of my brain off and simply worked for two hours. I gave myself permission to enjoy the process.

Malcolm Gladwell asserts that in order for anyone to find true mastery in their chosen field, they must put in 10,000 hours of conscientious, good practice. However, most people are unwilling to devote that much of their lives to study, as 10,000 hours broken down works out to be 20 hours a week over the course of a decade. I myself am perhaps around the 500 hour mark. But for comparison’s sake, I want to show you two paintings, separated by 14 months. The first was painted using dollar store paints, and the second was a commissioned piece using Golden acrylics.

Pink Asiatic Lilies (2014) - 16" x 20", acrylic on canvas

Pink Asiatic Lilies (2014) – 16″ x 20″, acrylic on canvas

Morning Meditations (2015) - 18" x 24", acrylic on canvas

Morning Meditations (2015) – 18″ x 24″, acrylic on canvas

Anyone with eyeballs can see the level of improvement. But it’s not just the hours that I spend in front of the easel. It’s also the time I invest training with professionals (Arlie Hoffman and Olaf), while positioning myself so that opportunity can be seized. This is critical to Gladwell’s theories of success; talent and genius are not enough, decisive action and self-positioning are critical to reaching peak potential. Even so, innate ability isn’t necessary to attain success; even someone of ordinary ability can push themselves to reach elevated status in their vocation through hard work, practice, and a willingness to learn. I find this completely reassuring. It’s so easy to look at professional artists and credit their success to their talent, which makes their work appear effortless. But talent is random, part of the genetic lottery we all play while in utero, while the hard work and dedication that leads to mastery is not.

At the end of the day, it all boils down to the question, how bad do you want it? Badly enough that you’re willing to train, slog through the tough projects, put in the time, face the prospect of failure, and endure the critics?

My answer to that question: yes. To achieve mastery in visual art is a dream, one I’m willing to make sacrifices for.

500 hours down, 9,500 left to go. I can’t wait to see where I am in a year. 


Are you working towards achieving mastery in your field? I’d love to hear your thoughts and stories. 

Get Thee a Mentor: Why Mentorship Matters to Creatives

“Marianne, honey, you have to get lower.”

The instructor is hovering, shaking her head. She thinks I can do better, which is nice, I suppose.

I don’t think my legs have ever hurt so much. I’m halfway through a weighted Pilates class, and am clearly the wounded animal at the back of the pack. There is a woman to my left who I have decided to nickname Abs. Abs is having no problem whatsoever. This must be a typical morning for Abs. I, on the other hand, am shaking my head with disbelief whenever the instructor (who is Toronto glamourous, instructing with exquisitely coiffed hair) demonstrates the next exercise. She executes each movement with grace and fluidity, despite the numerous Tiffany bracelets that adorn her wrists.

I am a hippo compared to these people.

“Show ‘em how they do it in North Bay!” My mentor shouts encouragingly. He’s in the corner, with strap-on ankle weights for the extra challenge. He looks like he’s having a wonderful time, smiling and joking around.

If I was thinking straight, I would’ve said, I just want to say for the record, my performance in this class is not representative of the population of North Bay. We are a strong, noble, rugged people.

Instead, I say, “Gwwwwwwuuuuuuuuh.”

Welcome to what I have decided to call Art Bootcamp – 2016.


 

If I could give one piece of advice to any budding artist, regardless of what form that art takes, it would be to go out and find a professional mentor. Find a person whose work you admire, contact them, ask questions, and learn. Doing this is what led me to Mississauga two weeks ago, where I studied one-on-one with one of my favourite working artists, Olaf Schneider. You can see his work at olaf.ca.

I first noticed Olaf’s work on the walls of the Wolf’s Den hostel on the edge of Algonquin Park. In April 2015, I took a solo trip to Algonquin, and stayed in the hostel while I wandered the trails that were just starting to emerge from beneath the infamously massive Muskoka snowdrifts. On the walls of the hostel I noticed a painting that was simply signed “Olaf”. It was ridiculously beautiful, and I stared at it for a good fifteen minutes, because sometimes it looked like a photograph, but then it was back to being a painting again. Just insane.

Long story short, but using the magic of Facebook, I managed to track Olaf down, and asked his permission to become his Facebook friend so that I could see updated works as he posted them. He generously agreed, and after a few more chats, we arranged for a weeklong workshop at his home studio in Mississauga. Below are a few of my favourite pieces that he’s created.

"Remember When" (36" x 60") by Olaf Schneider

“Remember When” (36″ x 60″) Oil on Canvas, by Olaf Schneider

"Breath" (40" x 60") Oil on Canvas, by Olaf Schneider

“Breath” (40″ x 60″) Oil on Canvas, by Olaf Schneider

"July" (30" x 40") Oil on Canvas, by Olaf Schneider

“July” (30″ x 40″) Oil on Canvas, by Olaf Schneider

Seriously, isn’t he insanely good?!

In one week, I learned more about painting than I possibly could have with years of self-taught trial and error. I learned how to stretch canvases onto custom-built frames, prime them, and lay down the image onto the canvas. I learned colour theory, different techniques, and used new tools. I saw the difference a proper easel can make, learned how to look at print outs of images and interpret colour into the piece itself. I could examine pieces close up, and learned how to harmonize pieces through careful touches here and there, that allowed the eyes to do some of the work of blending, and walking that line between literal photorealism and individual interpretation of a subject. I emerged with a wish list a mile long, and a commitment to shift the majority of my practice into oil painting.

The primary difference for me between acrylic and oil is the ability to blend, and the amount of stress that this reduces. In acrylics, you’re racing against the clock. Even with mediums added to your paint to slow the drying time, a skin starts to form on your paints after only five minutes of being on the canvas. Disturb that skin and you get accidental lumps. It’s like what happens when you heat up milk without stirring, and you get a skin on top that affixes itself to your stirring spoon, and is slimy and gross. However, acrylics are easy to clean up, odourless, and are more affordable than oils (even Golden, the crème de la crème of acrylics, are cheaper than oil), making them very accessible and easy to use.

With oils, your paints are workable for days; I even have to add a speeding agent to them to ensure that they would be mostly dry after sitting overnight in front of a fan. When I sit down to paint in oil, I can get up and walk away for several hours before returning, and it’s not a big deal at all. The paints that were put onto my taboret (which is a fancy palette setup) remained moist for almost the entire time that I was there. Sure, there are exceptional acrylic artists who have figured out how to work through the time limitations, but oils immediately eliminated many of my weaknesses in acrylics, allowing me to rocket ahead and learn buckets of new knowledge.

The major drawback with oils is that they stink. After a week in the studio I’d grown immune to it, but I remained sensitive to the odours of liquin (the drying agent) and turpenoid (the brush cleaner). Olaf has methods for containing the smells of both, but it’s not something I could do from the comfort of my two bedroom apartment; when I continue with oils this summer, I’m going to need to find a well-ventilated studio space. Fortunately I live in North Bay, so while studios may not be abundant, they are much more affordable than Toronto.

This is not to say I don’t love acrylic, or that one medium is better than the other. This is simply a matter of personal preference; ultimately, I think oils align better with my passion for Canadian landscapes. I’m not throwing acrylics under the bus, and I’m looking forward to continuing my work with them, but I am very excited for new possibilities with oil.

"In the Glowing" (11" x 14") Oil on Panel, by Marianne Vander Dussen. My first oil painting!

“In the Glowing” (11″ x 14″) Oil on Panel, by Marianne Vander Dussen. My first oil painting!

The workshop started between 8:30-9am every morning. Typically, it went until 5-6pm. We took an hour break every day to go exercise, a practice he maintains as part of his workday and wanted to include as part of the experience, demonstrating how he remains focused and energized. But aside from food breaks and gym breaks, it was constant. It was intense, and towards the end I was starting to crumble a bit, from being so overwhelmed with new information. But by Friday, I was holding a beautiful still life that I had painted, and was about 25% of the way through a lovely 22” x 35” painting of my parents’ farm, on a canvas that I had stretched myself, based on a photograph that I took a couple of years ago.

And that is how I wound up sweating in a beautiful Pilates studio surrounded by sculpted bodies that had no problem with the bazillion burpees expected by our fabulous instructor. Daily exercise is not a luxury; it’s a necessity for creative people. My productivity increased, my focus improved, and it got me out of the house, away from the canvas, so that I could be more present when I returned. But for someone not used to the rigours of long hours in the studio combined with challenging classes on a daily basis, I was absolutely exhausted by the end of the week.

Will I continue this kind of intensive exercise on my own once I resume painting? Absolutely. I’ll need to work up to it a little more, rather than jumping straight into the deep end, but now that I’ve lived the lifestyle, I understand its value. Same with shutting off distractions in the studio; friends can wait, social media can wait, everything else can wait. If I’m getting distracted, either determine a way to eliminate the distraction, or head to the gym and return after I’ve burned some of my nervous energy. Simple and effective.

The learning was challenging, but I loved it. I was pushed, guided, and helped towards unlocking new abilities and ways to read images. It was singlehandedly the best thing I’ve ever done for myself as an artist. I came back buzzing with energy, anxious to be in front of a canvas again. Unfortunately, the time has come to go into seclusion mode and hunker down on my thesis. I am getting closer and closer to finishing and am frankly desperate for it to be over with. The faster I get it done, the faster I can make use of all my new skills in oil painting.

Speaking of, the thesis is calling. Back to work.